Google just remembered that Android tablets exist, and the company has announced “Entertainment Space,” a new, tablet-exclusive interface that the company says is “a one-stop, personalized home for all your favorite movies, shows, videos, games and books.”
Google’s blog post is vague about the details of Entertainment Space. Is Space an app? Is it a new home screen, which would give Google a similar UI to a Fire tablet? Is it a report from The Verge that fills in some of the blanks: Entertainment Space is a new home screen page.
Just like how the Google Discover news feed lives on the left side of a home screen, or how Samsung puts “Bixby Home” over there, Entertainment Space will be the new left-most home screen for tablets, replacing Discover. So for apps widgets (and a customizable home screen), you’ll have the main home screen page any others you want to add. For media, you have this big custom interface on the left.
The interface looks exactly like Google TV: it aggregates media into big thumbnails instead of app icons, and it puts category navigation tabs at the top of the screen. There’s a “continue watching” row, and “personalized and trending recommendation rows from Google TV, Twitch, Hulu and many additional services.” The Verge report notes that Netflix is not participating in Google’s new aggregation UI. If you’ve got multiple people sharing a tablet, each one can have a custom profile.
Coming to… a Walmart tablet near you?
Google started its blog post with a pretty amazing stat, saying “over the last year, we’ve seen over 30 percent more people start using Android tablets compared to the prior year.” Google could have started this sentence with “Despite our best efforts…” since the company has does nothing to help Android tablets over the last five or so years. It doesn’t make tablet hardware anymore, and across apps and the Android system UI, stopped making alternative, dual-pane interfaces for tablets. For some reason, though, (probably because they are cheap) people keep buying Android tablets.
Google’s last Android tablet hardware was the Pixel C in 2015, and even that was probably an accident, since the device was developed as a Chrome OS tablet and only shipped with Android as an emergency “Plan B.” Chrome OS tablets would launch officially in 2018 and the first (and so far only) Google-branded Chrome tablet came out that year: the Pixel Slate. The last actually-developed-for-Android Android tablet was the Nexus 9, which launched in 2014.
The lack of any official Google hardware to launch new tablet software on means Entertainment Space is debuting on—uh—a bargain-basement Walmart tablet? Google says that “Starting this month, Entertainment Space will be available on Walmart onn. tablets. And later this year, Entertainment Space will roll out globally on new and select existing Android tablets from Lenovo™, Sharp and more.”
Going by that description and what we know about the app, it sounds like officially getting Entertainment Space on your device is going to require OEM buy-in, and you probably won’t be able to download Entertainment Space from the Play Store. This is a home screen panel, and plugging into the home screen as an always-on, integrated interface is not something Play Store apps are typically allowed to do. The best example of this we have is Nova Launcher’s “Google Companion” app, which enables the Google Discover feed on the popular third-party home screen app. The page explaining how this app works reads “the API from Google is restricted to just preinstalled (system) apps, such as the launcher that came with your device. Third party apps can only use it through a workaround of manually installing a “debuggable” APK outside of the Play Store.” Since there is not a public API for a left home screen app, then Entertainment Space will most likely require an OTA update from your hardware manufacturer, allowing it to be a system app.
The frustrating thing about Google’s tablet apathy is that Android tablets will probably start taking off soon. Assuming this foldable smartphone direction OEMs are pushing for actually works, foldable smartphone are tablets, and one of the big problems with something like a Galaxy Fold is that Android doesn’t do well on big screens. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a renewed interest in tablet interfaces.